how does a [sociology] phd work?

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This is Part I of a two-part series on the basics of a [sociology] PhD. Part II is titled “so they’ll pay me to get a phd?” and handles the monetary logistics.


A PhD ain’t for everybody, not because of intelligence, but because it requires a whole lot. 

Dedicating at least five years of your life to getting an advanced degree that does not guarantee employment is a choice not all of us — or those who rely on us — can afford to make. Alternatively, a PhD can provide some of us five years of job stability for the first time. Either way, finding information on the process as someone with further proximity to power — whether it be due to race, gender, class, disability, citizenship, language, nationality, or something else — can feel really aggravating. Almost everything I learned out about the “hidden curriculum” of graduate school came from word-of-mouth and, eventually, personal experience. 

This U.S.-based FAQ of sorts is my attempt to make the process a bit less scary. And although I am writing about my PhD program in sociology, much of the information can translate across academic departments. I’ve included links if you want to learn more about a particular topic. 

relevant information about the author

My name is Anthony James Williams, I use they/them/theirs pronouns, and I’m in my thirties. At the time of publication I am a third year PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. I started community college as a first-generation college student in 2007, transferred to the University of California, Berkeley in 2013, became a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow in 2014, and graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, Theatre, and Performance Studies in 2016. I then applied to 13 sociology programs, got into 8, and began at UCLA in 2017–18 school year.

I have also worked as a mentor to undergraduate students in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and this year I begin the National Science Foundation Graduate Student Research Fellowship Program. I am not an admissions officer, I’m just a Black queer graduate student trying to help folks feel prepared. The examples I give throughout are real and come from my experiences. You can learn more about me and my graduate school work on my website.


phd what?

“Earning” a PhD makes you a doctor of philosophy, and while that “doctor” bit may be obvious to some: I did not know there were non-medical doctors until I was in my early twenties. I knew that my instructors had a degree, I just didn’t know whichdegree. For the record, college instructors must usually possess a master’s degree or higher to get hired as lecturers or adjunct professors. But to become an assistant professor, an associate professor, or a full professor at a four-year university or graduate-only university? You gotta get that PhD. Here is how it works.

After you attain your high school diploma or general education diploma (GED), you can keep it going with trade school certifications, your associates, your bachelor’s, your master’s (MSW, MBA, MFA, MPH, MPP, MIIL, MA, MS, etc.), an even higher degree (PhD, EdD, MD, DO, JD), something else entirely, or none of them. Some degrees, like the PhD, the juris doctor (JD) the master’s in social work (MSW) are terminal, meaning end of the line. You get that degree and you should be set within your chosen career path.

Example: I have my high school diploma, my BA, and now my MA. As a PhD student in sociology my typical workday — because it is a job — is some mixture of reading, writing, and teaching.

phd who?

Less than 2% of the U.S. population possess a PhD. Due to a history of structural racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of structural and interpersonal exclusion: most of those people who do have a PhD are white men. And of those PhD-recipients, about half go into higher education with the goal of a tenure-track position, which essentially translates to “job security.” But many people choose to not go into academia for very valid reasons

And just like the departments are ranked, everything inside the school is hierarchical. In order of least to most access to power and influence: undergrads, Master’s students, Master’s/PhD students, PhD candidates*, lecturers/adjuncts, assistant professors, and full professors. I won’t get into department chairs or deans, but just know that everyone has a boss. 

*A PhD candidate is someone who is “ABD,” or “all but dissertation.” This means they have completed all coursework, all MA requirements, all qualifying and/or comprehensive exams, and a successful dissertation prospectus proposal. In essence, all they have left to do is do the dissertation, defend their work, and then they’ll get their PhD. This is why we often make a distinction between “PhD student” and “PhD candidate.” One is ‘merely’ a student, the other is eligible for a PhD.

But if nothing else, please notice that lecturers and adjuncts often teach large classes but do not receive the same benefits as professors, including any real form of job security. Some folks willingly become adjuncts while they are in their PhD program, but many folks are pushed into lecturer positions because there are only so many academic jobs as professors. Some universities will hire “continuing lecturers” or “senior lecturers” who then receive different benefits, but this practice is less common than the per-class style.Most universities do not allow them to vote on new hires, departmental changes, or graduate student admissions. They do not have the same, if any, healthcare because they are treated as contractors. And they often have to adjunct at more than one university in order to make enough money.

Example: I am one of two Black graduate students in my cohort of 13 students, the cohort above me had zero Black students, and the cohort below me had three.

phd why?

People often enter a PhD in sociology to research — whether for the academy, the public sector, or the private sector — and teach. But STEM and social science PhD program train you on conducting research, not teaching, which is why there are so many amazing researchers who are not the best trained or most kind educators. This distinction is important. 

While most college professor jobs come with teaching responsibilities, most professors at Research I institutions — this is what people mean when they say “R1” — like UC Berkeley de-prioritize teaching. Outside of their personal feelings about teaching, professors at top universities have to worry about getting published, securing grants, and doing service work in order to get tenure. In contrast, liberal arts schools like Pitzer allow space for the professor to teach and research, meaning that teaching and mentoring become a vital part of being a professor.

Example: I chose a PhD to be able to teach, research, and mentor, but I recognize(d) that my training would specifically be about research.

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phd how?

The good news: You do not have to have earned a Master’s degree to enroll in a PhD program because many programs include a Master’s degree along the way. And with the right criteria, you can get in straight from undergrad.

The bad news: Academia is elitist and conservative as hell and so that means that in addition to the straight up racism, classism, and sexism, you’re also dealing with rank and legacy. So although a student can enter a PhD program with just their Bachelor’s degree, not every student can. 

Example: My sociology PhD program at UCLA includes a Master’s degree. I entered with only my BA and earned my Master’s in June 2019 after two years in the PhD program. 

GPA Requirements

Some students had to work and parent as undergraduates, which means they might have focused more on graduating and paying rent than their grades. The reality is that departmental requirements often start at 3.0, but top-ranked programs are really looking for ~3.5 and above. 

Example: I had a 3.9 when I applied.

GRE Scores

Not actually a strong indicator of how well someone will do in graduate school, as research tells us. And there is a long history of racism, classism, and profit behind standardized tests, yet they are still required and some schools use these as a baseline for admissions. 

Prep courses are expensive as hell and I don’t recommend them unless you can get them paid for. Instead, I recommend using the free version of Magoosh six to eight weeks before you take the exam. Also take lots of practice tests, some of which are available for free from ETS themselves. And remember that the GRE is about checking your knowledge about the test, not checking the knowledge you learned during undergrad. So you will likely get similar scores whether you take it your junior year, your senior year, or years later because it isn’t based on that knowledge. Don’t let the GRE dissuade you from applying.

Example: I used my Mellon Mays funds to take a GRE prep course and ended up doing well on writing (99th percentile), well on verbal (82nd percentile), and poorly on math (51st percentile). And as a sociology student I did not have to take any subject tests.

Statements of Academic Purpose

These are different from the essays that got some of us into undergrad in that they are much more focused on your academics. A way to “get to know you,” but ultimately you need to use your personal story in service of your research and scholarly trajectory. I suggest following Dr. Eve L. Ewing’s advice on how to write a personal statement for graduate school. This is where you can sometimes make up for gaps in education, sparse CVs, and more. But do note that some schools will ask for a second, more personal statement or a “diversity statement.” You can share more of your personal story there, but keep in mind that. 

Example: I’m a proponent of not pimping out our trauma, so I opened these statements with a paragraph about relevant personal information related to my research journey.

Writing Samples

Let them know that you have conducted research before and can write it up. But if you haven’t conducted research, grab a really good final paper from a class and polish it up. 

Example: I took the excerpts from 50-page honors thesis that demonstrated I could design and complete a research project. So it looked like a bit of literature review, a short section on methods, lots of analysis, and some findings.

Letters of Recommendation

What is in the letters and who writes the letters are both important. The letters should speak to your potential as an academic through discussing you as a student, research assistant, or another similar role. To make their job easier you have to tell them well in advance (two months or more), remind them as the deadlines come up, send them your materials (statements, cv, writing sample, previous graded work from their class), and feel free to ask them to highlight certain things. 

Students often ask me about which professors to ask, and I’ve been told that while they should all be from professors — as opposed to people like bosses, grad students, or faith leaders —from your academic discipline,  their ranking really depends on where you are applying. Ideally they are tenured professors from your current school or the school you graduated from, but it can get tricky.

Say you need three letters and two are from tenured professors: if your community college lecturer will write a really fantastic letter then you may want to include them over a big-shot tenured professor who knows nothing about you or your work other than that you received an ‘A’ in their class.

Example: For most schools, I went with a junior faculty member in my discipline, a senior faculty member in my discipline, a senior faculty member outside my discipline, and the continuing lecturer who oversaw my thesis project. When I could only select three I would usually use the first three, but when I could select up to five I would include them all.

CV

Your curriculum vitae, or your academic resume, lists your accomplishments. My best advice is to recognize that you won’t have much to list and that is okay. Then lookup the CVs of people you admire to see how they formatted them and what they listed. 

Example: I had published a lot in popular press but not academically, so I highlighted the relevant popular press work, included all of my public service at the university, and included grants I had won from community college.

phd when?

You’re the only one who will know if you want to enter a PhD program and if you’re ready. What I usually advise people to do is talk to graduate student friends, and if they don’t have any, read things like the Survey of Doctoral Education. Grad school ain’t going nowhere, and it can take much more than five years, so taking time with your decision is key.

Example: I hope to complete my PhD in five years, but my anecdotal observations seem to suggest that it takes sociology PhD students around seven years to finish. But even if I’m done with my dissertation in five years, I may want to get out another publication before going on the job market. Life happens (death, birth, health, marriage, divorce, money issues, etc) and you are working on your own timeline.

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phd where?

In short, go where they give you the money, the resources, two to four professors you can see yourself working with, and the professional support necessary to get you a job once you’re done. Here is a breakdown of what to consider and why.

Department Rank

First, a school can have a cute reputation, but not all departments within that school are ranked equally. So pay attention to the department more than the school’s name and reputation. 

Second, ranking unfortunately determines potential stipends, chances to earn external fellowships and grants, and job prospects. A mediocre individual can get into a top-ranked institution and rely on their big name affiliation to get them a job at a similarly top-ranked university. A extremely innovate and well-trained individual can get into a lower-ranked institution but they do not have the same resources and are more likely to find a job at a similarly low-ranked university. It should not be all about ranking because you could end up at a highly-ranked school and hate your life, but do make sure to consider it.

Example: UCLA was top 10 for sociology at the time that I applied, as were my other two choices (University of Michigan and Harvard). But UMD was top 50 for sociology at the time that I applied and had Dr. Patricia Hill Collins not been retiring then that faculty relationship might have trumped department rank for me.

Department Fit

You have to go to a school with at least two professors with whom you’d want to work, but ideally three or four. You go to graduate school to do your own work under the advising of specific professors. The issue with just two professors of interest is that they switch jobs, your research interests change, you have less letter-writers, or something else entirely.

And more generally, you find out if you’d like to work with them by visiting their faculty pages and/or personal websites. Look at what they’ve published about in the last 10 years, see if your research interests align, see if your methodologies align, and when you visit the school after getting admitted: see if you think you can get along with them. Ask them how many graduate students they take on at a time to get an idea of how much time you’ll have together. Ask them what their advising style is and what they expect out of their students. You work closely with your advisor, so find out what you need to know.

But it is not just the professors, it is so much more. Is it a closed-door or an open-door type of department? Are there professors in other departments at the school that you’d like to work with? How large is your cohort? Do you get along with your cohort? What courses are offered? Do they teach the methodologies you’d like to learn? How much are you expected to teach? What are the departmental requirements to earn your MA/PhD? 

Example: In the last two years the three people I would have like to worked with — if I accepted Columbia’s offer — have all left to The Graduate Center, CUNY. I could not have predicted that, but had I gone there I would have had to find a new advisor during my third year of graduate school. I ultimately chose UCLA for my two advisors who I felt would help me create the work I wanted to create even though they did not specialize in what I hoped to work on.

Geographic Location

This encompasses a lot of things. Some of these questions may seem silly or obvious, but not every university is built near the specific things you may need. What are the population demographics? Is there a community there of folks who speak your language(s)? Is it a small town, a college town, a large city, or something else? How much does it actually cost to live there? How far will you be from your friends, family, and partners and how much will it cost for you to see each other? What other schools and potential resources surround the area? What is the political climate? What is the weather like? Is there a nightlife? What does dating look like for you? How accessible is it? What does the area feel like?

Example: Wisconsin Sociology is a top 10 program that I got into and would have gladly attended if it was the best choice for me out of those that offered me admission. But I dislike the cold and I like being close to Black and brown people, so I chose a city I dislike (Los Angeles) so that I could be warm and around more Black and brown folk. I also had loved ones living in California and I would be lying if I said that didn’t affect my decision.

Health

Your health is so important. Graduate students have notoriously bad mental health outcomes that are particularly heinous for those of us with marginalized identities. So this is about much more than if the campus offers a graduate student gym. Make sure that whichever program you select provides you with resources for your spiritual, mental, physical, sexual, and emotional wellness. You come first, don’t let the PhD steal you from you.

Example: I take advantage of my dental/vision/health insurance plans, I use the STI testing services on campus, and I try to go to acupuncture regularly.


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So now you know a lot more than I knew about the PhD process as I applied. But can you survive on what they’re paying you? Part II of this two-part series, “so they’ll pay me to get a phd?” explores just that. If you’ve read both, feel free to visit “AMA: PhD edition,” the public thread where you can ask me anything about this whole process.

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